Nikon 85mm f/1.8G AF-S Lens Review

bythom 85mm-g-series.jpg

From left to right: 20mm, 24mm, 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm f/1.8G 

Every time I shoot a portrait I lose a friend. —paraphrase of John Singer Sargent

What is It?

The 85mm f/1.8G is one in a continuing series of Nikon’s redesigned primes. We now have 20mm, 24mm, 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm f/1.8 lenses, with very similar feature sets and all designed using Nikon’s newer approach to lenses.

Aside. One thing is clear from this series, someone at Nikon didn’t get the message about video in DSLRs. We don’t have an aperture ring or E-type electronic aperture functions, nor do we have focusing well suited to video. Sad. 

bythom nikon 85mm.jpg

Primes don’t tend to be complicated lenses. The pertinent things you’ll want to know about the lens being reviewed are:

  • Maximum f/1.8 aperture, minimum f/16, with a 7-blade aperture diaphragm
  • Minimum focus of about 32” (0.8m) with a 1:8.3 maximum magnification
  • 12.4 ounces (350g) and only about 2.9” long (73.7mm)
  • 9 elements in 9 groups, no special elements
  • AF-S focus  (works with all Nikon DSLRs, even those without in-camera focus motors)
  • No VR, no tripod mount, simple MA/M switch
  • 67mm filter ring
  • The HB-62 lens hood and CL-1015 soft pouch come with the lens

There’s a narrow focus ring and a minimal depth of field scale (markings for f/16 only). 

Nikon’s page for the lens is here. The lens is made in China and retails for US$480. 

Source of the review sample: personal purchase. Results compared to one other sample lens available to me.

How’s it Handle?

Exactly the size I’d expect for a short but fast telephoto lens. Curiously, this is not the heaviest or the largest of the f/1.8G series of lenses.  

On my sample the focus ring is smooth and quiet. While narrow, it’s up front and easy to find. Rotation from near to far focus distance is more than one quarter of a turn, and close to one-third of a full turn.

Unlike some of the hoods on the f/1.8G lenses, the one supplied with the 85mm is relatively tight to the barrel, meaning that leaving the hood reversed means that you really don’t take up much more of your bag than with the lens naked. The hood itself is fairly deep, meaning the lens looks bigger on the camera than it actually is, but it also shields the front element quite well. 

One peeve with all the f/1.8 lenses I have that relates to handling is the differing filter size: 77, 72, 67, 58, 58, and 67 for the 20mm, 24mm, 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm respectively. This means you need probably at least three sets of filters, maybe four (I’d probably handle the 72 and 77 requirements with a 77mm filter and 72-77mm step-up ring.)

How’s it Perform?

Focus: As with all the f/1.8G primes, focus performance isn’t what anyone would call snappy. As with many of Nikon’s lower-priced lenses lately, the initial focus acquisition can be just a little bit more buh-zip instead of zip. Tracking performance once focus is acquired seems to be just fine, though. 

Even though I find the focus performance more than acceptable, the old D lenses were faster in acquiring initial focus, and that might be a real need for some trying to use an 85mm for covering fast action.

Sharpness: I’m going to go out on a limb here and say the 85mm f/1.8G is the sharpest of the Nikkor 85mms. I have to be kidding, right? Nope, I’m not. From edge to edge it’s right there with the 85mm f/1.4G, at least in the samples I’ve used. Indeed, I think my 85mm f/1.8G is slightly better centered than my 85mm f/1.4G was. And yes, both the G lenses are better than the D originals.

Curiously, the 85mm f/1.8G has no lens groupings, nor any special lens elements. It’s nine separate elements. And somehow that works. 

Wide open, the lens is what I’d call sharp. Sharp enough to make a D810 look like it’s really resolving 36mp from edge to edge. On the 24mp bodies, I can’t find anything I’d be concerned about wide open. Strangely, at f/2 to f/2.8 the lens seems to be going through some sort of transition. The edges actually get slightly worse as the center improves, but then once you’re to f/4, everything is excellent in edge to edge performance. Technically, f/5.6 is indeed the very best aperture, but we’re really picking hairs from f/1.8 to f/5.6. This is a darned sharp lens.

On DX bodies, it’s even better. So much so that there’s really nothing to find fault with in terms of sharpness.  Yeah, really.  

Chromatic Aberration: lateral CA is present in a higher degree than on the other f/1.8G lenses, but not enough so that it bothers me.Easily corrected, and is corrected by most recent Nikon bodies shooting JPEG. Longitudinal CA is very present, with substantive green shift beyond the focus point and magenta forward. By f/5.6 this is minimized, but it’s present to some degree at every aperture. This is fairly typical for fast prime lenses, actually, but it can be problematic in some photographic situations and is difficult to remove.

Vignetting: As with all the f/1.8Gs, probably the worst characteristic of the lens, though somewhat less of a problem on the 85mm. It vignettes substantially at f/1.8 (almost three-quarters of a stop for FX, hardly at all for DX). By f/2.8 the vignetting is mostly ignorable. Again, many modern Nikon’s have the ability to correct for this in JPEGs, and at f/1.8 you’ll probably need to use the Normal setting.

Linear Distortion: A very tiny bit of pin-cushion distortion, but not enough for me to measure well (well less than .5%). 

Bokeh: I’d characterize the bokeh, even wide open, as busy and irregular. The Latitudinal CA is part of the culprit, but my sample again has a very lopsided aperture diaphragm as I stop down. Nothing terrible here, but this is not a lens you buy purely because of its bokeh.

If the lens has a weak point in performance, it’s probably with focus. This is not the snappiest of lenses with autofocus, though it’s definitely not a slug, either. But the real issue here is the long minimum focus distance (a bit over 2.5 feet [.8m]), which means you won’t be getting in real tight on subjects. That’s fine for portraiture, but just realize this isn’t a super multi-purpose lens. The 1:8.3 magnification ratio is pretty poor as far as lenses go. So really close work is a no go.

Final Words

DX users will find the 85mm focal length (128mm effective) on the long side for portraiture, on the short side for true telephoto work. It’s not often in my DX kit. I prefer the 58mm f/1.4G for DX portraits, though that’s a very expensive lens for a DX kit. 

For FX, however, 85mm is a very nice portrait length, and you don’t really need f/1.4 for portraits. I tend to stay in the f/2 to f/2.8 range with this lens for head and shoulder shots, and there it performs excellently. I don’t even care about that little bit of strangeness the corners go through in that range because those corners are, well, way out in the corner where generally I’ve got an out-of-focus background. 

As I noted, I think this lens is better than the D series that came before it (better corners, less of distortion and aberration), and I even believe it better than the f/1.4G. So much so that I put my money where my keyboard is and sold my f/1.4G. 

I’ll have to say this for the designers of the Nikkor f/1.8G prime series: they created a range of mostly well-behaved lenses from 20mm to 85mm, and did so in a price range that Nikon generally doesn’t play in much (e.g. low). There’s not a bad apple in the bunch, but the 85mm may be the best apple of them all. 

Yes, yes, I know the build quality is a bit on the “light” side. So don’t abuse the lenses. Yes, I’m seeing a bit more sample variation out of these Chinese assembled lenses than the traditional Japanese assembled ones, though so far nothing that has proven problematic in shooting. 

Recommended (2016 to present)

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